Common Reading Program announces new 2020-21 theme

Masked student reading book

In response to the Black Lives Matter movement and requests from campus colleagues, the UO Common Reading Program is announcing a new theme and focus for the 2020-21 academic year.

This year will be dedicated to listening and learning about Blackness and the Black experience and dismantling racism. The new theme of “Listen. Learn. Act.” allows participants to explore multiple perspectives, voices and historical contexts of Black thought and lived experience.

All members of the campus community are invited to participate each year in Common Reading.

“We are, all of us, constantly in the process of learning and growing: the work of an institution of higher education,” said Julie Voelker-Morris, who directs the Common Reading Program for the Division of Undergraduate Education and Student Success. “We’ve selected this theme to acknowledge that none of us has all the answers, that each of us can do better, and that we do our best when we participate in anti-racist work together.”

Voelker-Morris said she has noticed that many UO incoming students are asking questions about racial issues. A number of first-year students participated in IntroDUCKtion and have asked a variety of smart, critical and challenging questions, she said. First-Year Interest Groups, known as FIGs, that are affiliated with social justice have been the most in demand.

Under the new theme, Common Reading will be divided into three segments by term, each focused on a different body of work. Fall term is dedicated to listening and focuses on The New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project, an audio, visual and written piece developed by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones in 2019.

The 1619 Project is based on the 400th anniversary of the arrival of enslaved Africans in North America. The project places the struggles of Black Americans from 1619 to the present at the center of the story of the founding of the United States.

The project’s accompanying podcast shares illuminating stories about the lasting impact of slavery on all aspects of American life. It asks significant historical and contemporary questions regarding liberty and freedom, justice and racial inequities. It also focuses on issues faced by African Americans around  health care and community, economics and civil rights, arts and cultural practices, and life in a multiracial democracy.

Hannah-Jones is a staff writer for The Sunday New York Times Magazine, who formerly worked at The Oregonian. She won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for commentary for her essay that anchored the project. She will speak at UO on Feb. 19 as the Ruhl lecturer at the School of Journalism and Communication, with sponsorship from the president and provost’s offices, the Division of Equity and Inclusion, and the Black Cultural Center. The talk was rescheduled from March of this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The 1619 Project is an important choice,” Voelker-Morris said. “We know everyone on our campus is at a different place in the work of addressing racial inequalities and understanding Black history and lived experience. The 1619 podcast offers a multiplicity of voices, perspectives and stories that contextualize this history in ways that are engaging and informative. This approach to U.S. history may be unfamiliar to some members of our campus community.”

Past selected books have dealt with topics of national concern, such as violence against Native communities, dismissive and abusive perspectives of migrant farm labor, and the plight of refugees.

“All of this work requires being comfortable with being uncomfortable,” Voelker-Morris said. “Truly, discomfort is the work of the UO Common Reading program. We hope students, faculty and staff who choose to participate will be able to use what they’ve gained from UO Common Reading to enact meaningful change in both the microcosm that is the University of Oregon and the world we inhabit more broadly.”

This year will be an ongoing experience, with related programming in partnership with colleagues in the Division of Equity and Inclusion, Multicultural Center and Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art. Black thought, scholars, artists and history are at the center of the work. A new website is being created, and formal announcements will be shared with the entire campus community regarding plans for winter and spring terms. 

—By Anna Glavash, University Communications